On 10 December, 1975, a then-record National Press Club audience of 630 crammed into Canberra’s Lakeside Hotel to hear Gough Whitlam. It was just days out from the federal election that would see Malcolm Fraser win in a landslide victory, securing the biggest majority in Australian history.
As Mr Whitlam stood at the podium to deliver his final pre-election pitch, even the true believers knew that the end was nigh. But the Labor icon, who on Tuesday passed away at the age of 98, still delivered a powerful speech that displayed all of his oratory skills.
With his wife, Margaret, watching on from the head table, Mr Whitlam launched into a rousing defence of his administration, of his attempts to make the parliament more accessible and accountable, of the “opening up of the structures and procedures of government” that had “advanced a great deal” since 1972.
“We have provided more information, more fully, more promptly than any previous Australian government,” he said.
While conservative critics deride the Whitlam era as one of chaos and controversy, a great deal of serious and lasting reform was achieved. In his Press Club address, Mr Whitlam listed some of these and reminded his audience of the various royal commissions and inquiries that he had established – into public service reform, overhauling industry assistance, establishing a national heritage list, a national rehabilitation and compensation scheme and, of course, the Woodward inquiry into Aboriginal land rights, which formed the basis of legislation.
While Mr Whitlam knew Labor would be trounced in a few days, he had lost none of his fight – particularly when it came to the three newspaper proprietors: Rupert Murdoch, the Fairfax family and Kerry Packer. He cast doubt on the accuracy of the opinion polls – all of which showed Labor heading for a trouncing – and said the media proprietors had “abused the public opinion polls to psych the Australian public into thinking that we’re going to be beaten”.
Two decades later, on 8 November 1995, Mr Whitlam returned to the National Press Club for the twentieth anniversary of his controversial ousting. And while he maintained that he was “not preoccupied with the Dismissal”, he argued that it was important that the Australian people “should have an accurate understanding of those events and the motives of those who took part in them”.
When it came to questions, perhaps the most sensational came from one of the doyens of the Canberra Press Gallery, Peter Bowers. He asked Whitlam about comments made by John Menadue, who had headed up the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from 1974 to 1976.
Mr Menadue, who went on to become ambassador to Japan and was CEO of Qantas for three years, was also a former executive at Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited. In his autobiography, Things You Learn Along the Way, published in 1999, Mr Menadue would write that Murdoch believed that “he had played a major part in the 1972 election result and that something was due to him. What he asked for was that he be appointed as Australian High Commissioner to London. Murdoch raised the appointment with me and explained that if he was the High Commissioner, he would put his newspaper and television interests in a trust so there would not be a conflict of interest. He has since denied that he sought the High Commissioner’s job.”
Asked by Bowers in November 1995 about the suggestion that Mr Murdoch wanted this role, Mr Whitlam responded: ‘In ‘72, in December, John Menadue came to see me about Rupert’s ambition to be High Commissioner in London. I said, “Well, there’s been a general perception that the Murdoch papers supported my government at its first election and that this would be a reward for that”. And I said, “I don’t think that would be proper”.
And then [Menadue] said that Rupert was confident that any criticism personally of him could be contained because the other proprietors, the Fairfaxes and the Packers … would not criticise one of their own.
And I said, “but it still looks as if there can be a situation where we were appointing a very rich man to a position from which he could obtain information to material advantage”. And John Menadue said to me, “No, he will put all his assets into trust”.
And I said, “no, I still don’t think I should do it”. And that was it.’
Steve Lewis is a senior adviser to Newgate Communications and the author of Stand & Deliver, a celebration of the National Press Club’s 50th anniversary, to be published in November by Black Inc.